We’re Crafty, I Swear

4 Apr

oscarSpring is trying to get into gear here in Chicago however, it was 72 degrees yesterday and is snowing today so I guess that means things are normal and right on track for April. Sigh. Literally 24 hours ago, I was sitting at the lakefront with my hubs after riding over on our two-wheeled vehicles, enjoying a road pop while the sun was warm enough that I removed my jacket. Today however, wool coats and boots prevail. To brighter days though, eh?

Some friends and I started She’s Crafty, a ladies’ beer club in Chicago (only, so far) which meets at least once month. We all have full time jobs and hobbies, so it’s hard to devote the time we should do to promotion, coming up with new event locations and ideas, networking, etc. but the good news is that we’re growing! In about 18 months, we managed to pick up two more regulars and three more semi-frequent attendees, which is better than the odds. The other lady beer groups in town are also national, super organized, and do a lot of ticketed events. Their reach is bigger and their whole system feels much more professional than probably ours does, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. We haven’t had any arguments, blowups, issues, or problems to speak of and thanks to a standard welcome policy, I’m told those who join us are excited to do it and most come back. We even managed to scoop up a lady who doesn’t enjoy beer but apparently just likes to hang out with us.

motorNaturally with all planning, some people heavy lift more than others, which happens in every group and organization under the sun. Some really enjoy taking the reigns and dealing with the the minutia, and some frankly, just want to be told where to be and when so long as there’s beer waiting. That’s been challenging for me personally, but it’s the best hobby I’ve ever had and it’s really exciting to see it grow. Two of our girls (not even in the founding five!) met up one evening to participate in bar trivia and named themselves “Team She’s Crafty”. I have to admit that I think I got a little verklempt when I read that. Our buttons have become our calling cards and when they’re handed out, it’s not uncommon to get a new follower or two on Facebook within a day. The more we meet, the more I’m convinced that not having a ticketed or even Very Official style is our selling point. Lots of ladies just want to hang out and enjoy delicious beers with each other, period. No more, no less, thu
s furthering the second credo of: “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. We don’t want to become the kind of ladies’ group that gives them a bad name, and we want the freedom to nip poor behavior in the bud before it festers (a group killer, no doubt).

We don’t have a Grand Plan going forward into 2016 or beyond, we pretty much come up with our events about two months out from each one, once we plot our personal schedules and review the places we want to go (and vetoing places no one wants to deal with getting to) then just see how it plays out. Some breweries and bars are amazing and welcoming, IMG_20160219_162542some seem like they are then our group shows up and are a surprise to the staff, and yet others never respond to our emails or calls at all. There are enough bars and breweries opening in Chicago every month that we’re not running low on places to visit, which when I think about smaller towns, realize that we are incredibly fortunate. We try to plan events with many factors in mind: Decency of beer list obviously, realistic start time, location convenience for those who don’t drive, finances (and methods of payment. We have a ton of cash-only bars around here and they are a pain), plus, of course the second most important element: fun. Our bottle shares are some of the best events we have and something we try to do at least three times a year, everyone looks forward to those.

So there you have it, the State of the Union of She’s Crafty Chicago. Nothing bad to report, and a few good things happening. That’s pretty much ideal, right? Now if we could only get our website built…

So Much Beer, More Than Enough Time

19 Dec

FOBAB, aka, the Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers, is an annual Chicago beer nerd (and those who hang onto them) hot ticket tradition. Tickets go so fast, you either have to have a few phones and computers going at the same time to score some, or you have to know someone. Or, you have to volunteer to work some part of the event and are paid by free entry to one session. Which is what my cheap friends and I do, because really for some hours of schmoozing, helping, and walking around (and pizza), it’s a pretty easy score.

This was my first year working and/or attending. My club has done it before and raved about it, so with my back… back… I decided I could handle it and signed up. When you apply, they need to know if you’re BASSET certified and if you aren’t, you take a test. If you don’t want to pour beers, you can skip that part and just sign up for whatever interests you (merch, welcome, ticket taking, ID checking, gopher, heavy lifter, etc). Pouring, they say, is always the best gig. You get to drink while you do it (“discreetly because we’re ” WINK WINK “not allowed”), you get a feel for how the rooms are set up and flow, and there is some choice people watching. But, there’s also a lot of standing, no break, and no time to chill once the crush begins. My back isn’t completely…back… so I opted to work registration. Turns out, that’s mostly standing around until it’s time to hand out glasses and guidebooks. Once those are gone, I was sent to coat check to help some Chicago cops raise funds. After of one of their 13 years old daughters went on to me about Hozier for a solid 10 minutes, I excused myself to “check on a friend in a room who needs some help”…and I never went back. I’m sure they were just fine without me.

But let me back up a bit. The overall flow of events is this: The organizers send out a Facebook request for volunteers. You pick which session you want to work and which session you want to drink, as well as which job you want to do. Then you attend an “orientation” which truly is nothing but free pizza and beer from Revolution while the organizers kind of tell you where to be and when, sort of tell you what to wear, and hint at timelines with a vague whiff of organization. It was about nine minutes of information (wherein mine wasn’t covered in print or via the mic). Things seemed shaky from the get. They didn’t improve. A week or two later, you show up to work, ask someone where to go, get a wristband and t-shirt, then wait to be put into action.

One of us worked Friday night so she could attend the Saturday night session with the other three of us who worked Saturday day sessions. Those of us who showed up to work checked in and then waited for a while. Some were already running around doing important jobs, some were standing around waiting. I was one of those. Eventually, I was placed behind a table with dozens of boxes full of dozens of tiny mugs that had guide books placed in them, to be handed to incoming boozers like batons in a relay. Some of us were plucked from that job and sent outside to check IDs and wristband the oncoming storm. Fortunately, I dodged that job twice. Chicago was hovering comfortably between 32-33 degrees with rain-snow-slush-snow-rain-snow, so when asked, I put on my biggest eyes and slightest grin and looked around. It worked, I wasn’t called.

After the books were handed out, about half an hour before last call, I made my way to coat check to help hand coats back. It was an unorganized, inefficient system with too many cooks and no kitchen (cops were in charge, did I mention that?). The Hozier conversation happened and right as I was on my last nod to, “I WANNA MARRY HIM SO BAD”, people began to funnel out. Slurs of lost tickets and jacket descriptions (“It’s black and puffy”) began to come at us. Bodies flew around the racks in an attempt to help. I just stood there, there was no system and no direction. I offered my tested method, thanks to many years of working coat check at a few restaurants, but they weren’t interested. So I went back to standing there, and dodged bodies.

Soon, I noticed an absolutely wasted man lean on his female companion who wisely set him on the ground then sat down next to him so he could lean on her. He was smiling, but he was seconds from puke and/or pass out. Shortly after him came a young man in his 20s, eyes slitted and knees giving out then popping back into position repeatedly. He leaned and sidestepped until he found station on a friend’s shoulder. Behind him came a man who looked identical to him in stature and condition, plus 30 years. I stood there, watching them barely stand there, swaying, pointing aimlessly, desperate to gain purchase on the arms of their coats and miss over again. Suddenly, I got very sad and very anxious. My heart began to race and I started to plan the quickest way out of my corner.

I made up the slight lie about my friend in the other room, excused myself, and went up to the volunteer room where I grabbed my phone and send Dylan a text. I told him what I’d seen and that for some inexplicable reason, it shook me. I could only assume it was because introvert me was about to barrel (ha ha) headlong into the exact same crowd, fresh and ready to get absolutely hammered. I can’t handle vomit. Out of control drunks make me exceedingly nervous. What had I signed up for? How many more were down there, waiting? So I stayed in the volunteer room until more helpers from my session began to show up. I took that as a good sign and went to meet my friend, who really did exist, at her pouring station. She handed me a few beers, we got caught up, and then it was time to clean. I helped her break down, then we went back upstairs to change into our street clothes to ready ourselves for the drinkin’.

They kept us upstairs for an hour or so with no information, which created all kinds of confusion and chaos. Why wouldn’t they let us downstairs? Would we be able to get in to get drinks before the public, as promised last year? Would our stuff be ok in the volunteer room, now that the night crew showed up and the whole volunteer population has doubled? Eventually, with some false starts and bad information, we were led downstairs and into the main room. We headed straight for the Goose Island BCBS booths where all four of us got different things. Mine was the best, as it happens, though I don’t think it can be purchased. Naturally.

From there we wandered around, enjoyed some BarricAle (several breweries follow the same recipe but produce vastly different results due to environmental variables) and lots of coffee stouts, sours, fruit beers… I can’t even tell you everything we had. Click on the link at the very top, that’s a good breakdown of what’s there and there’s a brewery map with every brewery listed. We had some great pourers who pointed us in the directions of kegs that were about to blow, some folks poured full glasses (about 3 oz) and others poured sippers. Some let us chat them up, some were not into that at all. Ultimately, by the time last call came, we were done and happy to go. I can’t imagine hanging on until someone shoves you out the door. By that point, they may as well pour you into a gutter.

My anxiety? Largely unfounded. Or… I got drunk…but I didn’t see anyone nuts until it was time to leave when no cab or Uber was safe. Yes, there were unsavory piles on the sidewalk here and there, but I didn’t witness it in action. Few were leaning against walls in misery nor were there many bodies laid out on the ground. Maybe like, two. Kegs blew, last call heralded, we grabbed our stuff and caught a cab down the block towards pizza and good old reliable, non-barreled Surly Coffee Bender.

While working I found myself thinking I probably wouldn’t do it again. It was disorganized for the volunteers and as far as fun goes, pouring really is the best way to do it (but not in the sour or cider room, it was a thousand degrees in there). Registration is ok but overstaffed and the risk of going outside to work in bad weather isn’t worth it, so next year if I do it, I will pour. PS – that BASSET cert is to cover FOBAB’s butt. No one asked to see the results. But by the time it was over, I was already thinking of which job to do next year. Being with my friends was the best part though, this is nothing to do alone, there is way too much to share and talk about. It is about 80% men to 20% women, and it is very white. At one point the DJ played Sweet Caroline and predictably, the room went up into that ridiculous “so good! so good! so good!” chant that occurs with the song these days, and my girls and I stopped in our tracks to cringe. Very, very white.

The draw of FOBAB is simple: some of the best breweries in the area made one-off kegs never to be repeated and most either never bottled or very rare. It truly is a once-a-year experience in many senses. Most that are there, are not there for the 13.5% beers only, they really are there to try incredibly interesting and unique, downright exciting, beers. It’s not a bar in the traditional sorrow-drinking way. Thankfully.

It takes an entire year to plan and I don’t envy the team one bit. I thought about offering to help, but it seems rather closed and frankly, they already have people in positions to do the jobs I think they need the most help with (and no one wants to hear that). So instead, I volunteer, I spend my seven hours trying to help however I can, and in exchange I get to drink some amazing, worth more than the $65 entry fee, barrel aged beers.

crafty

She’s Crafty, at FOBAB

Burping and Bubbling Into the Future

22 Sep

January was my last post? Seriously? Good lord. I mean, I’ve been busy!

Uhhh… hi.

So, I managed to get married to Dylan in June and obviously, that’s the biggest thing. The second biggest, is that we served a fantastic homebrew at our reception. Dylan received a gift card to a local homebrew store and used it to replenish his setup from years prior, then picked up a coffee porter ingredient kit while he was there. We bought some bottles and caps online and one night about six weeks before the wedding, began the process. We had a cool May so we got lucky that the temperature in his apartment was amiable for fermentation and racking, but before that we brewed some coffee per the recipe…

Ok, this was my first time witnessing a homebrew process so I remained quiet for the most part. I knew however, that the recipe was already way off from what I thought it should be in the first reading. They called for 96 oz. of coffee brewed with the equivalent of about 2 tablespoons of grounds. For those counting at home, that is an entire pot of coffee with enough grounds to brew about a cup, two if you like it weak. No way, man. Also, we kind of screwed up at first, to be honest, and forgot to buy really good beans. We wound up with an unopened bag of Costco roast, which brewed weak considering the recipe called for weak to begin with. Immediate tweaking was needed, but in the effort to stay true to the recipe we’d not tried before, we stuck with instructions. Dylan emailed the authors the next day and asked what the deal was. They insisted that this small amount of coffee was correct, and it would manifest in the nose more than the flavor. Well… that’s not what we want, we want something that would give Surly’s Coffee Bender a run for its money.

Dylan went to a different homebrew store here in Chicago and talked to the guys there (much more helpful, much cooler). They suggested that yes, while that is a very low amount of coffee, the flavor could be built by the use of straight up coffee beans or strong brew added during racking. We debated, he used his knowledge from previous brew experiences, and decided to wrap some beans in cheesecloth and add them to the final stage, prior to bottling. I kept getting updates to the tune of, “oh man this smells good”, “this beer is gonna be great!” etc. We kept our fingers crossed. I’ll be honest and tell you that I don’t remember if we tried it before the reception or not, I’m pretty sure we must have, but all we knew is that we had 36 bottles only and the bar (it was a DIY reception, we supplied the drinks and the caterer supplied the food and bartender) had to pour 5 oz. cups of our beer or it would run out before we even showed up after pictures around town.

The ceremony was perfect, the photos were great, everything was lovely. We were introduced, we said a quick thanks to our guests, clinked and smooched, and almost immediately my lady beer group made their ways over excited and chatty, full beers in hand. Our beers. Our label-less homebrew of which there were only 36 bottles. Erm, make that about 23 at this point, my girls are boozers. I asked if they were offered small pours, unanimously they shook their heads no. Turns out, the liquor delivery didn’t include the cups, which never made it to the final invoice along with the mead with which we intended to toast our wedding party. Ah well, that’s what it was for, right? So I or someone asked the bar to be sure to set four bottles aside: one for our caterer, one for my dear friend who is like a dad to me who also brews, one to split that evening (though I wound up with a whole one), and one to drink on our first anniversary. Otherwise, that was it. Bottles and beer, gone. Sigh. Everyone loved it, but man did they go fast.

It did turn out very well for an edited first attempt. It lacked roundness, we decided. It was more coffee than beer (not that it’s a bad thing) but the deep porter characteristic itself was a little lost. Still, it was very solid and didn’t taste at all like some of the coffee beers out there that are clearly more syrup than bean, or are more beer than coffee. It was a fairly respectable ABV for how big the flavor was, I think it came out in the low 6% range.

Fast forward three months later: We’re in a studio now and there is literally nowhere to brew, so there won’t be another attempt unless our forthcoming apartment has a quiet, undisturbed and slightly cold corner. If it does, or even a porch or anteroom, we’ll have a go at a stout before spring comes again. I’m looking forward to that one. Oatmeal? Oaked? Peanut Butter? Who’s to say.

In the meantime, we’ve talked about brewing in small spaces and all the little issues that can occur there. I’ve been diving into blogs and articles that specifically address those concerns. Check them out:
The Apartment Brewer
BYO, Homebrew Magazine
The Kitchn

So for now, we patiently wait for Dylan to start and finish school then start his illustrious career in IT (hurrah for job placement!) and then we wait even more for our kitchen to materialize and brewing to begin again. There are no photos of the beer, I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but our photographer did manage to get this fortuitous shot: beer as well as one of my beer club enjoying their (full) pours…
crafty girlsAnd just for kicks, this was our cake. Because magical animal.

Penny+Dylan-cake
See you sooner than nine months from now. Promise. xo

One of the Hardest Choices, Ever

15 Jan

A few things have happened since November. The biggest and the biggest sec. 2 are these:

1. I got a fantastic job. It’s creative, it’s challenging, it’s organized, it’s a small office with cool people and there’s even a beer nerd among us. It’s pretty much the best job aside from the irritating commute a whole three or four miles west that manages to take about 45 minutes on a good day (city living for you). Still, the good far outweighs the bad and it’s the first time I’ve been happy in my work since the brief window of early 2013 before I realized I was working for a horrible, abusive narcissist clothed in a generous person’s designer jacket.

2. I was proposed to, and I accepted. I am getting married in June and even typing that sentence, no matter how many times I do it, still somehow feels quite foreign. It’s not that I am one of those people who thought they’d never marry, I guess I just never thought about the possibility much at all. Perhaps it’s because I was dating the entirely wrong guys, but it wasn’t anything I put stock into with regards to my personal future. Now though, well, it’s very happening and it’s freaking awesome.

But there’s a problem. A big one. No, it’s not the caterer or the dress or the bridesmaids or a mother in law (who is excellent, btw). It’s this: I have to choose beer to serve at our reception. I know, I know.

We’re having it in a raw space where we hire out/bring in everything. Our caterer isn’t handling drinks for us aside from supplying the bartender (Illinois state law prohibits anyone unlicensed from doing it, whatever that means) so we have to do that ourselves. We’ve decided on one red (Pinot Noir? Cab Sav? sure) one white (Sav Blanc, Pinot Gris? whatever), one bubbles, a bottle of Malort because we’re in Chicago, a bottle of mead for the wedding party, and beer. Beer… three kinds of beer. Now here we have the serious quandary.

\crickets

We went from Schlitz to High Life to Coors Banquet (which really is pretty good) and that’s about as far as I got. I say “I” because between us, I am the beer nerd and he knows it. Personally, I freaking love Ale Syndicate’s Sunday Session. It’s light, unfiltered, smooth, just…heavenly. It’s only slightly hoppy but very drinkable and low in alcohol (open bar, folks). It’s a no-brainer and it WILL be featured, hell or high water. But then we have the third beer. Now, I am the only person I know who drinks dark beers year round. I will also admit that black IPAs probably freak a lot of folks out – much like the bartender I spoke to last weekend who wrote off Stone’s Master of Disguise Imperial Golden Stout (WHAT?! I know, I know. You have to try it) because he, “couldn’t get [his] head around it”. What? Dude, your job is to think critically. That stuff is bananas and you’re wrong for walking away from it. I think most people feel that way about black ales, actually. Anyway, that leaves a lot open. I took it to my fellow beer nerds and many suggested Half Acre Daisy Cutter (last time I tried it, I gave it a meh) or Revolution’s Anti-Hero. Everyone loves hops. Everyone but me. Temperance, you need to bottle. If you did, there would be no other brewery there because everything you do is just fantastic. Alas.

Sunday Session is unfiltered so I don’t want a wheat. I personally don’t love reds or ambers and while the future Mr. likes pilsners, I am not into them. Now, I grant you, I probably won’t be drinking beer that day so I should not put too much stock in it, but the fact is that most everyone knows that I am the beer dork between us and that puts a certain pressure on me to rep. Rye IPA? Ok, that’s interesting. Stout? No Guinness. Porter? No one is going to want a delicious, thick porter on a June day (stupids), no sours, no lambics, and while interesting, probably no ciders. Well, maybe a few ciders but not enough to make up 30% of the beer list since people rarely drink more than a few in a session.

I have no idea what to provide. All we agreed on was to try to keep it local if possible and nothing too hoppy. So, my girl beer group is going to pitch in next month or the month after when we do a BYO and everyone brings at least one offering that gets their vote (while following the parameters above, regarding what we already have). I promise you, I have already spent more time on this post and in this conversation than I have about my dress, bridesmaids, colors, or the groom. This is serious business and I have no idea what to do.

Suggestions? Leave them here. I can use them and I’ll add them to our BYO. Help. Me.

No Thanks, I Got It

18 Nov

A few nights ago I took a stroll to a bar that has a pretty good tap list. I’m almost exactly equidistant between two of them, so they each have their merits depending on what I’m looking to do or drink.

Bar A, let’s call it, is dark and wooden, full of neighborhood regulars, has a tiny kitchen and a huge and varied beer list. It’s got a couch and overstuffed chair in the corner, booths, high top tables, and a front that opens completely up in the summer. It’s almost the perfect neighborhood bar except for the fact that it’s usually too loud with music (albeit good music) for such a vacuous space. Once the evening regulars show up (folks mostly in their 40s or 50s) it gets loud with conversation as well. That is, I think literally, the only deterrent for me sometimes. It is run by beer geeks and they’re great for advice and conversation about beers, if you like those moments. It’s great during the daytime, it’s quiet and easygoing, a bar I’d be comfortable taking a book to read or laptop to work on.

Bar B is in the opposite direction and caters to a varied crowd from say, 20s to 40s on average. The beer list is about a third the size of Bar A and the space is about the same size if not a little bigger. It’s also loud, and depending on the night you go, probably not all that interested in talking to you about the beer but for a brief recommendation or nod when prompted for an opinion. The scene at night can be crowded and active with groups, but there’s almost always a seat at the bar.

The night I was looking to go out for a few, I checked my trusty go-to, BeerMenus. It’s a genius website that, ogothamnce you enter the beer or bar you’re interested in, will tell you where it is or what it has, respectively. It’s turning into the only site bar owners update regularly but it’s not very widely known, so the folks who rely on a bar’s website or Facebook page may often find them frustratingly out of date and thus, hit-or-miss. Being the social media maven that I am, I decided to tweet both Bars A and B to inquire about their lists, since neither had updated any resources in almost a month. Bar B responded to me almost immediately that my tweet had prompted them to update and it was ready. That won me over so I bundled up, made my way through Gotham, and into one of the only two open bar seats. Incidentally, Bar A responded shortly after I ordered my first drink with a promise to update their list as well, so it was nice to know that Twitter can be good for things.

The seat I chose unfortunately, was in direct line of the constantly-opening door and brisk 27 degree wind that blew in with ferocity. I cruised the beer list and put in my order. I chose the Cast Iron Oatmeal Brown by 4 Hands Brewing. It was just ok. I needed something dark and easy to begin with, but this was a little too easy. It had an interesting, nice and nutty nose with an easy hop profile, but after the initial sip it pretty much faded into mediocrity. I was disappointed in it, and reached for the menu to prepare my next order.

Sitting next to me were two men engrossed in conversation and I could tell they were new friends or had just met. After I ordered my somewhat disappointing drink and checked it into Untappd, I reached for the menu to photograph the tap list for my girls’ beer group. This particular bar does 12 beers every Christmas and if you drink all of them by then, you get a prize. As I was pondering my next beer, I heard a voice come from my left.

“What kind of beer do you like? Do you like IPAs?” he asked, pointing at the beer list. I could tell immediately that he thought I didn’t know what I was looking at because I was quizzically looking at the menu, and was planning to help me navigate the terrifying waters of beer selection. I responded that no, IPAs aren’t my favorites. He asked what I do like, because he can recommend me some. I told him porters and stouts, and that’s what I was looking at. He began to list some that I “might be interested in”… now, as I type this, it sounds purely conversational and not very forward, and it wasn’t. But he definitely thought that I didn’t know what I was doing, and assumed I needed his opinion to figure it out. I was instantly indignant but I responded with a cool, “Thanks, I know what I’m getting next” with a smile and that was the end of it. I sat there thinking about it for a while after though, and one thing kept rolling over and over again: If I’d have been a man sitting alone at a bar with an open beer list in front of me, he likely wouldn’t have said a single word to me.

It’s 2014! Can women still not go to bars alone without being a source of intrigue or seen as damsels in distress over a beer list? Come on! When I got home and told my sweetheart about it, he asked if I gave the guy what-for. I said no, I didn’t feel like getting into an angry feminist debate with him, but it got under my skin and continues to when I think about it. Why must we be on guard when all we want is to enjoy a nice dark beer and some alone time to taste and ponder? Why does it appear that we’re looking for conversation or that we’re something to be approached because we’re dateless? I have a great fella at home, thanks. He doesn’t share my deep and abiding love for beers so he chooses to sometimes stay behind while I go exploring. This works out perfectly for us and when he does come along, we taste and try and talk to the bartenders (ok, I mostly do the talking but he’s learning). No one bothers us then, no one assumes we don’t know what we want even though we debate it for minutes prior to ordering and probably more accurately, they assume he’s helping me with what I want and not the other way around. Incidentally, when these kinds of guys find out I know what I’m talking about they almost never want to keep talking about beers which leads me to believe that’s not what they were in it for to begin with…

Beer culture is definitely still very heavily male. I saw a few photos from last weekend’s Festival of Barrel Aged Beers and 90% of them were comprised of men. It’s an interesting dynamic that I’m only just now beginning to see up close. But much like home maintenance or car care, it’s not all limited to dudes. I’m happy to lead the charge in these changing times, I kind of enjoy the surprised expressions. I’ll talk about beer with you all day long, but if you come at me like I don’t know about them and need your help, we’re going to have a problem. The bar owners and managers I’ve run into are always into the idea of a girl beer group and in fact, often offer to have us in because “it sounds so cool”. Bar B was no different that night, in fact.

Anyway, my takeaway from the experience, after I finished a Revolution Fistmas and paid my tab, is that Bar A is made for the solo drinker (as some bars are) and Bar B is made for conversation with those around you. I love going to bars alone, it’s one of my very favorite things, but not all are created for that purpose. A lot of the times, we’re still just sitting ducks.

Are Craft Beer Events the New BaconFest?

4 Nov

There have been a flurry of articles lately surrounding the rocket rise of craft beers in the US which have some of us wondering if this is just yet another trend to witness and release a la all things bacon.

Some weekends ago, I received free tickets to a beer tasting here in Chicago. It was at a ballroom / concert venue and they managed to fill about 90% of the huge space with vendor tables. We were given about three hours to make our ways through “for 10 tastings” but no one ever checks those punch cards so we were pretty much at an open bar for three hours. I took my girl Maria with me, who is in my ladies’ craft beer group She’s Crafty. We beelined for a few familiars then wandered into the cider room where we had some truly tremendous offerings (my tasting notes are below). After that, we tried a few others before going upstairs to the local breweries’ tables. Part of the time was spent trying really cool, weird beers, and other parts were spent networking in hopes of finding the next location for one of our She’s Crafty meetings. Because of that, we found ourselves talking to those doing the pouring much more than making sure we hit every table to sample their wears. The best of intentions paving the way to hell and all, the more we talked, the more they gave us and the more we drank so before I knew it, the time was up and we were drunk. I did manage to make some great connections though and added a few spots to the “must do” event locations. That to me, is what tasting events are for: discover new, fun brews and make some connections and friends. Not everyone sees them for that though, sometimes folks just want to get drunk (I dare say, under the guise of a classier-sounding “beer tasting” than “openbarfuckyeah”).

There was a bar here in Chicago seven or eight years ago, and I’ve heard of others doing this since, that offered cheap or free baskets of bacon during “happy hour”*. I got way, way up on my highest horse about that and waved my fist in the air about how bacon isn’t your whore and if you truly love it, you won’t put it on the street corner and hand it out to every single person that has a yen for it. Treat it with respect, don’t give it away. By making it common – hell, even free – its intrinsic value is taken down to the floor. Suddenly we have bacon lip balm and bacon wrapping paper. In short: a trend.

Craft beer has been eeking its way towards that same descriptor for a while now, but in the last two years or so, Chicago at least, has simply exploded with new breweries and shows no signs of stopping. This is great, right? More yummy beers to explore? More people to get really into the scene and create more conversation? In theory, yes. In reality, we see a lot of Lyle Lanleys coming in, bringing their IPAs, ales, and over-the-top flavors with them. Suddenly it’s put on the street corner and next thing you know, craft beer tastings with 150 vendors that include the likes of Blue Moon and the “artisanal” division of MillerCoors lines up next to the guy who brews with his buddy in the basement that managed to get a four-bar distribution deal set up. For the record: Blue Moon and MillerCoors better bring something really cool and interesting to the party in order to compete with that guy. True beer folks can see right through those shenanigans pretty quickly. For instance, did you know that MillerCoors is behind Redd’s Apple Ale? I see that stuff everywhere and I’ll admit, it’s actually pretty tasty, as is their Belgian offering, St. Stefanis. What? You didn’t know those were made by a beer company giant because nowhere on the label does it tell you so? Interesting…

Last week, I received a Facebook invite to join yet another beer event. It has “Chicago” in the title however, it occurs in a suburb 20 miles away with no direct way to get to the venue via public transit. Chicago is a city of  almost three million people, with over a quarter of whom don’t own vehicles. While our public transit system is pretty good (minus the crucial ability to traverse north to south without going all the way to the far east in order to do it), it does not extend to that particular area. In this case, the promoters used the city’s name for allure but haven’t thought much beyond that. In my kinda humble opinion, that is a good metaphor for what happens when something that takes such time, effort, and art, becomes fodder for “foodies”. I suspect a Food Network show about a brewery isn’t too far behind.

I love the opportunity to try new things, particularly when its beers that are hard to find in an area or within a few bars’ radius. I am all for that kind of blitz learning. In fact, tomorrow my sweetheart and I are going to take advantage of a free day and head over to Small Bar. This particular establishment is closing soon, another victim of the kind of gentrification that happens when a formerly neighborhood-cool area succumbs to the oontz oontz douchebag crowd and jeopardizes the vibe so many came to love. They were over it, and rather than fight for a stronghold on a block that is now more interested in Irish car bombs and Jaeger shots, they’re packing up with their dignity in tact. This is great news for the scavengers, in a lot of ways. My man doesn’t know a lot about beer and wants to, and bars like Small Bar are perfect for daytime sit-and-sip sessions. Their bartenders are about turning people on and getting them excited, not just drunk. So we’ll do a little tour, sip some interesting items, and I’ll take some more notes. I hate that we’re losing another one to a street that’s changing for the worse, but I’d rather see them go out on top with a Local Option Morning Wood than a $15 Bud Light pitcher special. With that, I will leave you with some tasting notes and suggestions for your next trip to the local booze house. But before you do that, patronize your local fancy beer bar. They may not be around for long.

BeerHoptacular 2014 tasting notes (less descriptors as beer flowed on, but I had the wherewithal to write it down so it counts):beer notes

Cider:
Seattle Cider – incredibly tasty and dry, maybe my favorite or def. top 3 ever. 16 oz. cans
* Dry Cider, 0 brix
* Pumpkin Spice, 2 brix
DeMunck’s – Southern Tier makes a cider! Super tasty, crisp, dry.
Virtue -Lapinette has serious funk. Gorgeous, soft cheese funk. Brettanomyces! Yiss!

Beer:
Dry Hop – More Stories than JD Got Salinger. 6% ABV, garam masala what!
Spiteful – Abbey single, beer bread caraway. Freedom Fries – nice stout
Begyle – pretty much everything they do rules (female brewer! new brew facility soon!)
Marz – What The Pho porter, 6.5%. They ONLY beer we had twice. Freaking amazing, pho spices! Weird, man!
Blue Moon (yeah, I know) – Horchata wheat. Freaking horchata and beer. Better than I wanted it to be. Test market.
Ale Syndicate – local darlings, everything they do is great and their branding is awesome

And then we ate all the cheese leftover on the Whole Foods table, made friends with some dude pouring the last of his dark beer, grabbed a t-shirt off a bench, ran into some friends and went across the street for another one. Frankly, it ended on a light note considering how often and easy it is to just keep going and going. The afternoon tasting is always going to be way less of a shit show than night, since the night time ones are the ones no one has anything to live for and the brewers are going neck and neck with the jamokes. It’s ridiculous fun if you get the right mix of folks involved.

Oh Da Yoo-Pee, Eh?

5 Aug

My best friend has been on me for 12 years to go with her to visit Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, residence of her grandmother, supposedly excellent beach camping, and not too many bugs (knock knock). Turns out, it’s also home to a few breweries, fancy that! We’re looking at 78 and sunny with lows in the low 50s, I think that’s pretty choice.

We set out from Chicago Wednesday afternoon and head north, through the Land of Cheese, past the home of the much-reviled Green Bay Packers where we will offer our own special salute, and into Iron Mountain, MI where we will hopefully find something to do after seven or eight hours on the road. Come Friday, we head north to Houghton, location of Keweenaw Brewing and The Library. I won’t lie to you, I’m trying to convince her to get there via the long way, through Marquette, home of two other breweries, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen this trip.

Speaking of trips, I’m slowly amassing a list of breweries throughout the continental US for a massive, long-term road trip in 2015. I’ll be in need of your suggestions and connections as time approaches, so please send them along as you think of them (though if you want to find me on Pinterest, do, and send them there since I have a board going).

I’ll report back. High hopes for the Yoopers, I’m sure they know something about drinking.

The Tricky Business of Beer Label Design

4 Aug

Time Out Chicago’s Amy Cavanaugh recently aimed her sites and fired at Rockford, Illinois. Specifically at Machesney Park, the suburb of Rockford that hosts Pig Minds Brewing, and more specifically than that, at a particular label they have for their PD blueberry ale. The label features the rear view of a mini-skirted lady whose undies have fallen down and are now stretched between her ankles (hence the “PD”: panty dropper, for those whose brains don’t automatically go there). Behold:

PD

I am friends with one of the brewers so I was privy to the fallout on his Facebook wall, most of it full of colorful language and such implications that Ms. Cavanaugh had perhaps not known the romantic touch of a man in a long time or maybe needs a vacation. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of calling her a “bitch” and implying that she is just an internet troll with no cred nor writing skill. Neither of those is true, she writes some of the most honest, carefully considerate (and sometimes harsh) restaurant reviews Time Out has, and I personally think it’s very unfortunate that the people who commented on my friend’s post resorted to that base of a reaction (something that Ms. Cavanaugh herself accuses Pig Minds of doing via their label, base denominator appeal). Nobody’s winning here, you guys.

Someone pointed out in his comment thread that Lagunitas (who recently opened a brew facility in Chicago with a female head brewer) features a lady on the label of their Little Sumpin’ ale. True, they do indeed. But um, it’s not quite in the same vein. To wit: littlesumpintaplogo

So after reading that exchange, I posted to my group’s Facebook page and posed the “does it matter?” question to the people.  Not much response yet, I’m hoping for more because this is an important conversation. The hard part of the conversation though, the thing that seems to stop it in its tracks, is that we’re talking about beer. We’re trying to speak seriously about something that most people don’t consider to be very serious (unless you’re the owner, brewer, investor, bartender, assistant, or promoter). It’s a product that folks beeline to in order to escape the heavy things in life, right? Unless we’re talking about a wee heavy, ha ha. Well, yes, ok. But it’s also a boys club and has been since it all began, which is hard to fight. Women have a hard time breaking in and staying in let alone with opinions that go against the industry and tradition. I’ve worked at breweries, I see what happens to the one female who may well brew beers herself, who may sling bags of malt over her shoulders and shovel out the spent grains right along side of the guys and who invests just as much heart in the process, but at the end of it, she’s still a girl. She still has to listen to the macho dick swinging that goes on whenever craft meets art meets nerd. She may even have a dick to swing of her own (you know what I mean) but in a lot of ways, she is just a woman in a man’s world. She’s the reason we have to have things like the Pink Boots Society, and Barley’s Angels, and ladies nights. Women can’t just show up and jump in yet, we still have to prove that these two lumps under our shirts don’t prevent us from thinking and doing, let alone appreciating and discussing.

Anyway, back to the labels. it doesn’t take much to see that beer labels are aimed in a particular direction. A lot of them look like metal band posters, stoner doodles and horror movie ads. As a graphic designer, I care less about the copious t & a and more about the sheer ugliness of the things. The taste level is what we should be talking about, here. Give me a crisp, clean label any day and I will dollars-to-donuts reach for your beer over the one that looks like a Xeroxed flier for that Pig Destroyer show in your buddy’s basement. Some of my favorites: beer labels

So, there we have it. An argument about visual preference, females, dudes, an ages-old idea of what appeals to beer drinkers (notice we’ve not even touched on how the stuff tastes, here), and perhaps one of the more important points designers take into consideration, we hope, is what the label says about the brewery itself at first glance. If I see a tasteful, clean label like the ones above, I get very little impression of what that brewery may be about. Is the minimal approach indicative that they save the goods for what’s inside the bottle? Do they just not like clutter? Do they want to give you a feeling before you take a sip or do they want you to simply open it and decide for yourself? And what about Three Floyds? When I look at their artwork, I see a bunch of misfits (dudes, honestly) who are into heavy guitars and who have ZZ Top-level beards, many black t-shirts, and have mastered the art of thrashing around with a half-full glass in hand. That is beer produced by a bunch of nutters, and it’s definitely working for them.

When I was 17, I wanted to dye my short hair oxblood red more than anything else in the world. I don’t remember what job I was working at the time, but I’m pretty sure I’d have had a harder time finding one than when I sported my standard brunette. I was indignant about what kind of narrow-minded jerk judges someone based on her hair color, and something about how it shouldn’t matter because I have a pretty good work ethic stomp stomp slam. But then I grew up and things stopped being theoretical. At the end of the day, I don’t care about a label as much as I care about what’s inside. If I’m so horribly offended, I’ll just pour the beer in a glass and banish the bottle to the bin. But handing someone their opinion before your brew has a chance to speak puts you near the back of the pack in a lot of ways, at least for people who do care about looks. And since women are among the fastest-growing group of beer drinkers, maybe it’s something worth caring about.

She’s Crafty, And She’s Just Your Type

21 Mar

I am one of those people who gets a wild hair up her rear and you might as well punch out, go home, take a nap, make a sammich, and call me in the morning because: I got this.

About a year ago, the Chicago winter was releasing its grip and friends began to crawl out from under their blankets. We gathered for BYO brunch which turned into a trek down to one of the best bars (and restaurants) in Chicago, Three Aces. Seriously, this place is in my top 3 Must Visit List for tourists and locals alike. I love everything about it (except for its nuclear bunker-like cell service, pro tip: sit near the windows for a little bit of signal and the outlet you’ll need when your phone spends two hours struggling to make contact with the outside world). As my girl Sabrina and I were sipping our very dark 10 oz goblets of something heavenly or another, we talked about how there were no good girl groups around town for beer appreciation. Sure, there are always plenty of girls gathering to booze it up but very rarely is it anything educational or informative. Most often anything attempting that devolves into giggling or tears before the night is over and I wind up not wanting much to do with the association, thanks.

Well, ok, that’s not entirely true. There are a few national organizations that I won’t name here, but one in particular someone told me to reach out to so I did. It took them two weeks to reply to me and when they did, it was the VP who said that the Pres was very busy with work and wasn’t planning any events anytime soon. Being the pushy opportunistic jerk that I am, I asked if they were in the market for new blood (read: competent, dedicated blood) to which the VP responded that while yes, that would be handy, the Pres wasn’t very willing to surrender the controls at that time. Ok then. I’ll make my own club with lots of events and cool chicks. Done!

Logo finalIntroducing… She’s Crafty: Ladies’ Anti-Temperance League, Chicago. That’s the link to our Facebook page but of course we have a proper website in the works and when it’s up and I’m happy with it, I’ll link it here. The goal, dear ladies, is to give us a place to meet and talk about beers, try ones we’ve meant to, ones we have no desire to, encourage others to get curious, and talk about why it mattes. Having spent the better part of my life in the service industry and having teamed up in this endeavor with a few others who have as well, we have access to a lot of the local breweries and a few have even reached out to see if we’d like to do a few events with them. We have friends who are cicerones and some who are studying to be. We have both amateur and professional brewers who are always happy to talk about it. Most of all, we are a cool group of girls who want to get together and share our love of all things delicious beer.

So with that, my friend, I humbly request that you pass us around. But you know, respectfully and gentle-like. We’re everywhere. Besides Facebook, you can find us on Twitter (@ShesCraftyChgo), Untappd (ShesCraftyChicago), Instagram (shescraftychgo), and in order to get hold of us via email, send something to ShesCraftyChicago@gmail.com and we’ll respond promptly.

AND if you have a connection to a brewer or brewery and you think they might be into what we’re doing, please send them our way. We’re always looking for more locations and event ideas, every suggestion is welcome. Off we go!

Real Surly

1 Mar

Hi there. I’m still gathering my notes from Cleveland, they were rather extensive, so once I have them in some order I’ll post. Also, IT’S FINALLY MARCH! March 2012 was the warmest on record in Chicago and while it’s snowing as I type this, I know that by the end of this month something will be blooming and that first whiff of spring air will send everybody bouncing happily around town. Fingers crossed, everybody.

Today I want to talk about a brewery called Surly because tomorrow at 2pm I will be entering a bar three blocks north and ordering several of their best option: Coffee Bender. The anticipation is causing me to watch the clock like it’s the last day of school and I’m making myself nuts. Especially because it’s Saturday night, it’s only 7 pm, and I have no plans.

surly_girl_logoA little back story: Surly is a lovely, rather small brewery just outside of Minneapolis. I had the great fortune to visit last December and it was one of the better tours and tastings I’ve been to. They’re tucked away in a neighborhood right off a major highway but you might as well be in the sticks. No curbs and gutters, pickup trucks, etc. but as it happens, that brewery has ingrained themselves with their neighbors and the city, maybe even the state, to the point that they pulled out of the major market of Chicago just so they could keep up demand in their hometown. How stand up is that! They had to pass a new law or two that would allow them to build an on-site tasting room next to the brewery which will change the way Minnesota brews from now on. They cleared the location and myriad concerns with their neighbors, and continue to seal the deal by throwing block parties wherein they supply the food and drink, all in surrounding blocks attend. They help with snow removal and small municipal hitches, all to keep the peace. Everybody wins. It might be one of the happiest blocks on earth.

Surly is no different from every other brewery you may have toured. They put the mouthiest, funniest guy on staff in charge of the tours and let him go, beer in hand (and encourages you to get one too, he’ll even give you a break halfway through to let you pee and get another). He dons the standard-issue brewery work shirt with his name stitched on, he tells stories about the build, the equipment, the area, the laws, how their wives and girlfriends are as much to thank for support as the people who drink the beer, and how everyone else’s jobs sure must suck because he gets to do this. Aside from particular elements akin to each brewery, those talks are almost always the same. Every now and again you get someone talking about how beer is made, where it comes from, etc. but the better tours contain the stories of inception (most of which begin with one guy’s burping, bubbling, amateur system in his basement and its ensuing disasters).

Centrifugal force filtration system at Surly Brewing, Minneapolis

Centrifugal force filtration system at Surly Brewing, Minneapolis

There will always be those guys, too. D&D dorks of beer, and you can spot them in every crowd. They wait until the exact moment to ask about canning vs. bottling, hop varietals and shortages, centrifugal filtration systems (hot), water purification methods, malt roasting times, etc. and they are at every single brewery. You get the feeling that, right along with the brewers, these were science club dorks that never really found a niche until they discovered very good beer. And you know what? I admire them, they found a cool, somewhat mainstream outlet that lets them truly nerd out and make people happy in the process. Good on you, geeks.

T2013-11-30 17.41.43he taproom is fairly standard, metal tube furniture and high top tables, a few flat screen televisions on the wall, tile floor, and that rust red paint on the walls. A wooden bar with two sets of tap lines, and a big room of merch for sale off to one side. The tap list I’m sure rotates regularly but when I was there, they were definitely preparing for winter. Lots of stouts, dark ales, spices, chilis, and smoke. I had the Dumpster Fire which while very interesting was way too chili heavy for the pint that was served (12 oz or snifter, I’d have suggested), and in truth I choked down the last three ounces. I also had the Misanthrope which for you sour fans, is probably the beer you’ve been waiting for your whole lives. And while I know for sure I had one more and knowing me it was probably dark, I can’t tell you which. My friend Martin had three I didn’t have, so all together I tried the majority of the list. We here in Chicago get Furious regularly now so I didn’t bother with it (not my favorite).

Enter: my favorite, Coffee Bender (5.1 ABV, $6 16 oz can). This beer has all the things I want in life, at 10 am on a Tuesday. It tastes first and foremost, like coffee. Cold pressed, Coffee_Benderamazing quality coffee. Then the malty, mildly hoppy brown ale comes in. The creamy head acts like the crema from an expertly-pulled cup of espresso. Every sip elicits a sexy half-closed eyelid and a languid, “Mmmmmmmm” from my softening posture. It is a beer I want to slow dance with. It’s rich while being effervescent, slow while delivering that definite coffee punch, and if it was socially acceptable I would pour an entire pint can into my to go mug rather than the brewed Kenya I have in the container on my counter. Truly, it is one of the most beloved beers on my Top Five Desert Island Beers List. It’s not always easy to find, but I completely recommend seeking it out because if you love coffee, if you love dark beers, and if you love America, this is the beer you’ve been searching for and never even knew it.

Find it in your area at Beer Menus (but change the location, that’s set for Chicago). The prices can be shocking, though I suspect it’s cheaper in your neck of the woods, thanks to Chicago’s taxes. Our prices range anywhere from $6-9 per pint can, and four packs anywhere from $10.99 – $16.99.

Next up: I can finally let you in on a secret that’s been in the works for almost a year! Ladies in Chicago who love beer, drop me a line with your contact information or keep an eye out. We have you covered (finally)!

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